There are nights when you stay awake, staring at the ceiling, thinking of every conversation you had in which you said something embarrassing or ignorant. You imagine being laughed at, people talking behind your back, remarking on how deftly you manage to put both feet directly in your mouth. There is a person you were, a person who didn’t dress well, who didn’t carry themselves with confidence, who didn’t know the temperature of a room — who mistook speaking often for saying something of value. You look back on this person and cringe, thinking of everything you would do differently if presented with the same opportunities today. You are so much older, you think, so much smarter.
But you’re not that much older, and you know it. It’s only been a few years (though, at this age, a few years can mean a lifetime). Maybe you have a job now, a more stable relationship, an apartment that you’re proud to show people. You have achieved things, and have things under control, that just a short time ago seemed completely unfeasible. You’ve started to realize that becoming an adult (and learning how to deal with the responsibilities that follow autonomy) is not something that happens overnight. It develops in tiny steps, from learning how to make a budget to picking out healthy things at the grocery store. And with every step you make towards adulthood, towards maturity — you pull farther away from the person you used to be.
Who was that person? What did they do? They had dreams, didn’t they? They used to think about everything that was possible in life, everything that could be accomplished (never, of course, taking into account things like finances or insurance or vacation time — that would be too complex). But they were filled with impatience and optimism, and a certain kind of immortality. They never thought about what it would mean to be in debt, they only knew that they wanted what the loans would bring them. They entered into relationships that were clearly not good for them, that would make them feel like nothing, because it made them feel alive for a few precious minutes. They drank and smoked and stayed up until 5 a.m. and felt fresh the next day with just a greasy breakfast sandwich. They were indestructible.
But they were stupid. They were ignorant. They said and did those things that keep you up at night, running over and over conversations and exchanges and arguments that make your stomach turn in frustration at your own short-sightedness. You often look around at the mess you’re in today, a mess you can only chip away at with the righteous patience of maturity, a mess that you were only too happy to construct for yourself when consequences seemed something reserved for another lifetime. It is so easy to hate the person you were before, to want to distance yourself as much as possible, to admonish them for making bad decisions in hopes that you will never make them again.
Would your life be easier today if you hadn’t been so cavalier? Maybe. There is a chance that we dig ourselves into holes that are unnecessary, that contribute nothing to our better qualities or the people we are going to become — people we might actually like. But we are so willing to forgive the childish mistakes of others (or even the ones we may have made as actual children), so accepting of the notion that one might have to go through moments of ignorance to come to any kind of clarity — except with ourselves. With ourselves, every transgression is something to self-flagellate over, to lose sleep by concentrating on, running over it like we would our tongue on a cut inside our cheek.
I think of myself at 18, full of irrational hopes and interested in the wrong boys, doing and saying things that I would come to regret only a few short months later. She seems nervous, overly preoccupied with what others think of her and insistent on accomplishing goals that are at best, unfeasible, and at worst, detrimental. But I also know that, without her, without her impetus to move and change and get over old hang-ups with no remorse, I would not have left my hometown. I would not have fallen in love — with new friends, with terrifying experiences, with the way a city feels in the evening while wandering around, looking for a new restaurant.
There are so many things to reproach about our younger, more foolish selves. There are so many things which, with even a year or two of perspective and hesitance, we would do better. We are more methodical, more critical, more balanced. But if nothing else, we can look at the moments where we humiliated ourselves, where we got our heart broken through no fault but our own determination to love people who didn’t love us back, and know that we got through it. No one can divide their life into perfect little moments with completely clear repercussions — but we are wholly constructed from our mistakes as much as we are from our triumphs, including the idiotic ones made when we were 19.
And let’s never forget that, with a few more years of perspective, we’ll roll our eyes at everything we thought was the end of the world today.